Simplest Things Shed Light on Roman Life

Jim Blaich ’14 – Ah, the 4th Thursday in November:  Thanksgiving.  For every Thanksgiving that I can remember, I have always woken to the smells of coffee cake and turkey after sleeping in for a few extra hours.  I start the day off right with a homemade breakfast and I move on to watch football for hours on end with my family.  This Thanksgiving has been very different, but just as nice in its own right.  We woke up early and ate a quick continental breakfast before catching a train to Ostia Antica, the city that acted as Rome’s port to the Mediterranean during ancient times.  No modern city exists on top of the ancient site, so being in Ostia on Thanksgiving actually reminded me a little bit of being at home:  the quiet countryside was relaxing.

At the site we visited the ruins of some public latrines.  Dark and dingy, this oversized outhouse would have been a highly trafficked spot in ancient times.  While ancient bathrooms are a bit of an unpleasant topic, seeing them in person really helped me to reflect on the course as a whole.  Just to be clear, the title of our class is “Self and Society in Ancient Rome,” and in it we try to imagine how all levels of ancient Roman society would have created, used, and felt in, both public and private spaces. We had read a few articles about this latrine and discussed it in class, but my my thoughts on it changed once I stood in front of it in person and listened to Alex Gilham give a great presentation.

When I read an article about the latrines, I could sort of imagine what it would be like if I unfortunately had to enter.  However, once I saw it for myself, I think I was more able to feel (not imagine) what it would have been like for the average Roman citizen to live his life.  When studying Roman history, it is very easy to only pay attention to the great emperors and their grand accomplishments and military victories.  But, standing in front of a small public bathroom helped me to see how most of the ancient people lived:  it would have been a dirty, smelly, and short-lived existence.

Thinking about actually living in ancient Rome reminded me that I will be actually living in modern Rome next semester when I study abroad.  This week has whet my appetite for more than just leftover turkey that my mom is saving for me, but also for coming back in January.  This trip has been an amazing cultural experience, both ancient and modern, and I know that next semester will give me more of the same.

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